Sudbury: A Historical Case Study of Multiple Urban-Economic Transformation – by Oiva Saarinen (1 of 4)

Oiva Saarinen is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Geography at Laurentian University. He has published many articles on Sudbury’s past and is author of Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Historical Geography of the Finns in the Sudbury Area. This article was originally published in Ontario History/Volumn LXXXII, Number 1/March 1990.

Sudbury serves as a relevant historical case study of a settlement that has undergone several transformations since its inception as a fledgling village in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Though changes of this kind have been frequent in Ontario, they have not normally happened to hinterland resource communities. This article suggests that Sudbury is unique in this regard, having evolved through five distinct stages: (I) a railway company village, (2) a colonial-frontier mining town and city, (3) a regional central-place, (4) a declining metropolis, and (5) a nearly self-sustaining community.

The constant restructuring of Sudbury’s society and economic base has been caused by a variety of external and internal forces, among which the “human dynamic” has been vital and ever present. The paper suggests that under certain circumstances a resource community can progress from a staples and boom-bust existence to a more sustainable urban economy based on local and regional influences.

A Railway Company Village

Sudbury began its existence as a company village of the Canadian Pacific Railway. 1 In 1883 it became one of the places in Northern Ontario chosen as a temporary construction centre for the railway company. Situated on the outer limit of habitable territory, the site gave no evidence whatsoever that it would ever acquire an importance beyond that of a small wayside station for the transcontinental railway. In 1884 the Commissioner of Crown Lands made land grants to both the CPR and the Jesuits. For the first few years, the population of the townsite was composed almost entirely of railway employees. The CPR initially banned private enterprise and ran all the boarding houses and other retail businesses in the village. When the company subdivided its portion of the site in 1886, it used a gridiron plan that recognized the influence of the pocketed topography and the existing rights-of-way of the railway lines. The legacy of this original layout remains to the present day.

In the meantime the Jesuits had established a parish known as Ste. Anne of the Pines. 2 The name referred to the existence of forests in the area before the establishment of mining; it also suggested a sharp contrast to the stark image that emerged later. For a time there was a thriving lumber industry that permitted W. J. Bell to emerge later as Sudbury’s most successful lumber baron. As the decade progressed, the future of the townsite bleakened as the CPR operations were transferred to Biscotasing; with this move the era of the railway company town came to an end. Only lumbering held some limited promise for the future. Completely isolated from the centres of power except for a rail link to Montreal some 700 kilometres (420 miles) to the east via the bustling town of North Bay, Sudbury showed every indication of becoming a CPR ghost town like so many other construction camps along the mainline. Such, however, was not to be the case.

A Colonial-Frontier Mining Town and City

The assumption that Sudbury was only a temporary village began to change after mineral deposits were discovered nearby in 1883. In the following two years, prospectors such as Thomas and William Murray, Charles F. Crean, Rinaldo McConnell, Thomas Frood, and James Stobie staked numerous claims in the area. It soon became clear that the village was adjacent to a huge geological structure (now known as the Sudbury Basin) containing vast mineral deposits (see Figure 1). In her memoirs, Florence R. Howey wrote that by the spring of 1886 “we knew Sudbury was going to be a mining town.” 3 This knowledge, however, did not lead to a boomtown expansion as occurred later at Cobalt; rather, the transformation from a railway to a mining community was gradual and piecemeal. This was due to the technological difficulties in processing the complex ores and the lack of markets for copper and nickel. The first tangible expression of this new phase took place in 1886 and 1888, when mining and smelting operations were started in Copper Cliff. 4 These operations heralded the entry of the Sudbury area into an era of export specialization based on the mineral wealth of the Sudbury Basin. 5 The resulting optimism prompted Sudbury to become an incorporated town in 1893. The subsequent exploitation and settlement of the region was, from the outset, subjected to many outside influences. Economically, the mining sector fell under the control of American and British entrepreneurs who brought with them outside capital, management, and technology.

The history of foreign economic domination began with the formation of the Canadian Copper Company in Cleveland by Samuel J. Ritchie in 1886.6  Encouraged by the Canadian and Ontario governments, Ritchie managed to acquire the’ most promising mining properties from prospectors who lacked the money to exploit their claims. In 1902 his enterprise became part of International Nickel, a new giant controlled by the well-known steel industrialist J. P. Morgan and headquartered in New Jersey. 7 The clear superiority of the nickel-plated U.S. warships in the Spanish-American War of 1898 inspired British interests to form the Mond Nickel Company in 1900; by 190 I its smelter was shipping processed nickel and copper to Great Britain. By the turn of the century, therefore, Sudbury had emerged as an integral and vital part of the Canadian staples network serving international military needs. The local dominance of Inco and Mond soon came to be matched by the global dominance of the Sudbury Basin in the world’s nickel industry, In Canada and Ontario, the image of Sudbury as a mining town took firm root in the public mind.

The power and influence of Inco expanded when the company absorbed Mond in 1928; in the same year, Inco was “Canadianized” in order to avoid the antimonopoly sentiment in the United States.8 In 1930 Inco opened its gigantic new smelter at Copper Cliff (see Figure 2). These events firmly set the stage for the reshaping of Sudbury’s image to that of an “Inco” town. Simultaneous with these events was the creation of another major corporation, Falconbridge Nickel. Encouraged by these developments, Sudbury became a city in 1930.

Another strong outside influence was the-international market. As Figure 3 reveals, the demand for nickel fluctuated widely in a highly cyclical fashion. During the 1920s nickel production declined substantially as the metal made its transition from a strategic military material to a consumer product. The boom of the late 1920s collapsed with the onset of the Great Depression. World War II and its aftermath brought about yet another pattern of expansion and decline. These boom-and-bust cycles contributed to a constant feeling of uncertainty about the long-term economic future of Sudbury, which for many became simply a place of transition rather than home.

External influences in the form of provincial mining policies also left their mark: indeed, here could be found typical examples of colonialism, for provincial policies as they affected the Sudbury area were designed solely to attract foreign capital and divert development benefits from the local to the provincial treasuries. Free rein was given to the mining industry regarding the local environment and working conditions, little thought being given to the harmful aspects of the exploitation process, which were borne entirely by the local residents and communities.9

Sudbury’s geographical location too remained on the fringes of mainstream Ontario until two railway lines were completed to Toronto in 1908-09. Local retailers and wholesalers were thus faced with strong competition from Toronto, as they were again a few years later from North Bay, which emerged as the main point of road entry into northern Ontario after Highway 17 was completed west to Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie in 1912. 10 This highway network gave North Bay a powerful advantage over Sudbury until the 1950s. 11 The local consequences of those influences were profound: environmental degradation, a punitive system of mining assessment and taxation, the formation of a network of company towns, and a low level of socio-cultural well-being. Because of the high sulphur content of the Sudbury Basin mineral deposits, it proved necessary at the time to roast the ores before smelting, using open heaps which burned for months and sent dense sulphurous clouds over the surrounding landscape. These infamous roastyards, along with slag and mine tailing zones, gave rise to impressions of the area as a barren and treeless landscape.12

Even though the last of the roastyards was abandoned in 1929, the visual legacy of this early technology remained for decades in the form of soil erosion, blackened hilltops, and stunted vegetation. Not surprisingly, this degradation evoked images in the press such as “death valley” and the “surface of the moon.” 13 As this environmental pollution was limited to the Sudbury Basin, there was little public interest elsewhere in the province in the possible alleviation of these effects.

Even though the Sudbury area was strongly represented in the provincial cabinet by Frank Cochrane and Charles McCrea, this did not deter the province from exempting the mining companies from paying property taxes like industrial operations in southern Ontario. This policy, devised when the mining industry was in its infancy, was given formal acknowledgement in 1910, when the Assessment Act was revised to make buildings, plants, and machinery on mineral lands non-assessable by municipalities.14 Although this act came under constant attack by Sudbury politicians throughout the century, this political pressure did not bring about any favourable results until W. S. Beaton, mayor of Sudbury during the 1940s, helped persuade the province to devise a special revenue for mining communities to compensate them for their inability to tax the mining companies. The compensation, introduced in 1952, came in the form of mining revenue payments which permitted municipalities with mining properties within their boundaries to tax profits up to prescribed limits.

A different form of revenue assistance was created for the City of Sudbury, which did not have any mines within its boundaries. This came in the form of a provincial grant in lieu of a mining tax. 15 Studies by the city in the 1950s concluded that these mining payments were the equivalent of only one-half the revenue that Sudbury would have received if it had been a typical heavy-industrial city in southern Ontario. 16 The inequity inherent in this system was a cause of the low level of municipal infrastructure in most of the Sudbury Basin communities. The continuing references to Sudbury after World War II in the national press as a “slum” or “a smaller version of Katowice, Poland” bore apt testimony to the legacy of this provincial assessment and taxation policy. 17

The colonial-frontier atmosphere was intensified by the long distances between towns and by the fact that many of them existed only as company towns. Copper Cliff, just to the west of Sudbury, emerged as the Inco “showcase” with comfortable houses appropriately segregated to conform with the employees’ status in the company, well-kept streets and parks, and numerous recreational facilities.18 A highly paternalistic attitude prevailed in the Inco company towns, where all the essential services and even political representation were firmly controlled by Inco. The Falconbridge townsite similarly emerged as the community showcase for Falconbridge Nickel (see Figure 4). The company-town phenomenon continued as late as the 1950s, as evidenced by the creation of townsites at Lively and Onaping Falls by Inco and Falconbridge Nickel respectively. Although these company towns provided pleasant physical surroundings, their effect on the socio-cultural and political development of the area was less beneficial. In fact, the company towns expressed the philosophy that segregation by class and race was not only desirable but necessary.19

In the Sudbury Basin company towns, internal ghettos evolved which were occupied by immigrant workers. In Levack the periphery was known as Little Warsaw; in Coniston, two immigrant areas developed, one dominated by Italians and another by Poles. At Copper Cliff, a district known as Little Italy emerged beneath the smokestacks; other areas to the south were occupied by east Europeans and Finns. The francophone population never even made it to the company town; these workers settled either in the agricultural heart of the Sudbury Basin known as the “Valley” or simply went to Sudbury. For all practical purposes, Sudbury served as the external “fringe town” for both Inco and Falconbridge Nickel,20 a fact confirmed by population figures: in 1901 Sudbury embraced some 21 per cent of the region’s population; even as late as 1951, only 50 per cent of the regional inhabitants could be found within its boundaries.21

As the company towns attracted virtually all the white-collar employees of the mining sector, Sudbury lacked a middle and upper class aside from a few doctors, lawyers, and clergymen. This demographic imbalance greatly skewed the local political system and fostered a blue-collar dominance of community tastes and demands. It is not surprising that the local daily newspaper, the Sudbury Star (known to some as the “Inco Star”) acquired an inordinate amount of local power, which it used to influence politics and protect the interests of the mining companies.
Nevertheless, a number of desirable features did develop on the local scene.22  A compact downtown emerged with streetcar lines to both Lake Ramsey and Copper Cliff (see Figure 5). For the majority of male residents, sports became a passionate recreational activity, and both Inco and Falconbridge Nickel sponsored numerous hockey and baseball teams. Owing to the vigorous efforts of the Finnish community, a widespread interest developed in wrestling, skiing, and track and field.23  The residents of Sudbury were also fortunate in having two large parks, thanks to the visionary parkland philosophy of W. T. Bell, a municipal parks official during World War I, who was not only responsible for acquiring land in the downtown which eventually became Memorial Park, but was instrumental in obtaining land fronting Lake Ramsey.

Later, Bell donated additional land to form present-day Bell Park.24  Another distinctive socio-cultural force was Local 598 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. Certified as the bargaining agent for the workers at lnco and Falconbridge in 1944, this local became the largest trade union in Canada. It also gave Sudbury some of its most dynamic personalities, such as Nels Thibault, Mike Solski, and Weir Reid. In the years following certification, the union established itself as a powerful social force by building union halls and a children’s camp and by founding popular programs involving the theatre, sports, music and feature films.25

See Part 2 of 4 – A Regional Central-Place

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